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Exclusive | Made in Heaven 2’s Nirvana Sawhney: ‘It was quite an experience to be directed by Zoya Akhtar’

Nirvana Sawhney, who was last seen in Made in Heaven Season 2, talks about all things MIH 2, explosion of OTT space and more in an exclusive conversation with OTTplay. Read on…

Exclusive | Made in Heaven 2’s Nirvana Sawhney: ‘It was quite an experience to be directed by Zoya Akhtar’

Nirvana Sawhney in a still from Made in Heaven 2

Last Updated: 07.32 PM, Oct 15, 2023


How often do you come across somebody whose name gets etched in your memory because it’s unusual and a simple conversation with them transports you to a meditative, almost cathartic, state? The afternoon I spoke to Nirvana Sawhney became memorable for me, for reasons more than one. Firstly, her portrayal of Gauri Khanna (Jim Sarbh’s half-sister) in Amazon Prime Video’s Made in Heaven Season 2, which released a couple of months back, earned her a lot of applause (and rightfully so). Secondly, there’s a certain raw, unfiltered charm about her that makes you want to keep listening to her. 

OTTplay caught up with the actress who’s trained at the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. In a freewheeling conversation, Nirvana got candid about all things MIH, how TV shows differ from OTT series, working with the likes of Jim Sarbh, Kalki Koechlin, Zoya Akhtar and more. Edited excerpts below:


Q. Your name is quite interesting and unusual. Is there a story behind it?

A. Having this name has been quite an experience because anytime I tell somebody my name, there's some joke or one liner that people have cracked. So, I'll be asked this question very often, ‘Are your parents hippies? Or is it like more of a spiritual thing?’ In fact, the first play I did, I did a stand up routine, only on my name. I introduced myself as Nirvana and I said, ‘My parents are not hippies,’ and like, I clarified. So that's how the audience was also kind of hooked with me, joking about my name.

Q. A lot of times the name of a person also reflects in their personality. And then Nirvana also refers to a state of being zen and chill. Are you like that as a person?

A. I'm more inclined towards spirituality. I have a meditation practice, and I'm all about spirituality and energy. I definitely think my name has something to do with it because (when I was) growing up, people would say something about my name, and I had to know the meaning of it. Even as a little girl, someone would be like, ‘You know what your name means?’ And I'd say, ‘Yeah, it means freedom from the cycle of birth and death.’ And they’d be like ‘Wow!’ Sometimes they’d also make a joke about Kurt Cobain (chuckles).

Q. You've done TV, you've done short films, you've done some ads. And more recently, you've also done an OTT series (Made in Heaven Season 2). What's the difference that you find between a TV show and a web series on OTT?

A. Originally, I wanted to do only theater. I've done theater for 14 years as my primary thing. And then I moved to do films and TV and OTT. So, even the TV show I did (Bin Kuch Kahe) was a series. Filmmakers were making short series before Netflix and Amazon became the IT thing. The production and work for OTT has been Made In Heaven. So that experience is its own thing. In terms of the character’s journey, on TV, it would evolve. Like I would find out about the character’s development as I went (along) over eight months. But with something like Made in Heaven 2, there was a lot more clarity about my character. In the beginning only, I had conversations about how she was and all of those things. 

Also, in Made in Heaven 2, I worked with three film directors. I think in direction also there was a difference in how a TV series is directed and how much time you have on a script - that was essentially different. Obviously, the way it was filmed was different. And my experience on the TV show Bin Kuch Kahe was also quite like a film so there were some similarities too.

Q. Let’s talk about Made in Heaven - the second season where we actually see you. How did the show happen to you?

A. I sent an audition to Nandini Shrikent and Karan Mally. When I sent it, of course, there are auditions that interest you, and you want that to happen. But you also kind of have to be somewhat detached when you send them. So, I sent it and I think a few months later, Karan told me I was shortlisted. I sent this during the lockdown and he said that Zoya Akhtar wants to meet you. Then I went to Mumbai, met Zoya and I auditioned for her with Nandini and Karan. 

Interestingly, the scene that’s been getting so much attention - the one where Jim (Sarbh) comes to my house - the confrontational scene? That's the one I auditioned with. After that, I met her (Zoya). I was focusing on my acting, but when I was leaving the office, I was just like, ‘Oh Zoya, I’m a huge fan’ and that was like a cute moment for me, kind of surreal to be in the Tiger Baby office. Then they finalized a few actors but I got a call that I got the part.

Q. Who isn't a Zoya Akhtar fan, right?! Let's talk a little bit about your character in the show. You play an illegitimate child, and, till now, there are probably two ways in which we've seen such characters being played: (a) Either they’d be really angry with their parents/father, or (b) they are forever in their shell, quite coy and wouldn’t really like to face things head on, and they don't really want to confront their siblings. But Gauri Khanna is like a breath of fresh air. In fact, the scene that I really liked was where you make Adil a nominee, you sign the papers, and then you quietly leave. You don't have any expectations from him. I want to understand what was the brief that was given to you, for this particular aspect of your character?

A. When I auditioned with the scene, the script was good enough for me to get a sense. But when I took on the role, I had conversations with the team about things like, what is Gauri’s background? I wanted to know whether her father was even there? Because even I thought that she was angry? And how did she feel seeing her mother being a single mother? They really clarified to me that he was a good father to both families, and she (Gauri) was given a good life. And I understand that there are nuances to a character, like, when you say, good life, of course, there are layers, but it was made clear that it's not pity and it's not anger. But the current situation is that this brother is threatening her and she's not going to take that. She stands on her own two feet sort of thing. So, thanks to this audition scene, I did get a very good sense, but the scene that you're talking about - when she makes him the nominee. Interestingly, again, it was mid-lockdown. A lot of months had passed when I did that scene, and Neeraj Ghaywan was directing that one. 

I worked with three different directors on my scenes and it was very interesting. I think once I got a sense of it, I just flowed with my understanding of it, and obviously, the little feedback or changes, wherever they would need it, I incorporated those. And that scene again, when Jim is saying that ‘My father didn't tell me I had a sister, but I'll sell her…’ So there was a little bit of improvisation. It was really helpful to have a great co-actor on set. So it's a combination of working off actors having been given a very clear brief that, ‘Okay, she's not operating from a sorry space and the directors as well.

Q. We often talk about the male gaze and the female gaze, especially when it comes to how a scene/show or a movie is filmed. You’ve worked with three directors in a single show, two of them being women, and then there’s Neeraj Ghaywan, who's known for his particular style of filmmaking, and the kind of genres, themes that his movies touch upon. Was there any difference that you felt in the filming process of Neeraj vs Zoya and Alankrita Shrivastava?

A. All of them have their distinct vibe and ways of operating on the set. But that said, it seemed like everybody was in sync, in terms of what they were asking of the character and their journey. Whether it was Neeraj or Alankrita giving me feedback on different things, there was a familiarity. I never felt like, ‘Oh, what they're telling me is outside of what Gauri would do.’ As an actor, you get a sense of that as well.

My scene with Zoya was my first day on set and that was a big scene, where there was Jim and Kalki (Koechlin) and Lillette Dubey - the last scene of the show. My first one with Zoya was with everyone on the set and I was just taking in everything that was going on. But with Zoya, it was quite an experience to be there and be directed by her. It was a huge scene and she was just like, on top of it, in a very playful way, and also very focused. So the energy of the set on that first day was really really nice. There were smaller interactions and different experiences with each (of the directors), but there was definitely a unity in the vision of it.

Q. How important do you think it is to improvise in a scene? Is there any scope to improvise these days? Because when we have directors like Zoya or Alankrita, or Neeraj, who are very clear in terms of what they want from their actors, is there scope to improvise still? And how much of a leeway do you think is given to actors these days, to bring a little bit of their own element to their characters?

A. Whenever you improvise, obviously, you don't go outside of the dialogue and the vision that is created by the writers and the director, but when you have a good hold of your character, and sometimes spontaneously, some truthful reaction will come which adds to the scene. And if the director is able to, enable that, or hold space for that, it can become a really beautiful scene. 

It is like a collaboration where the director has a vision, and the writers have written something, and you as an actor, you are going to keep to that vision, but in being truthful, and authentic, there are going to be some unique bits that you will bring to your role and that's what is meant by improvisation, especially when it's a journey specific thing. It can be in my reaction, it can be in happiness or in sadness, but how I'm going to do it with my certain nuances that will be improvised based on either my reaction from a co-actor, or whatever the moment is eliciting truth for me, but not going too far. 

Like in theater, you have a lot more room sometimes. But with these things there is, what you call, a delicate mix. At my institute where I trained, Lee Strasberg, improvisation is a lead of the preparation process anyway. You get to know the actor, you get to know your character, but you also kind of go into the backstory. There are so many things that you do and all those are like 100 improvisations. We might not show it all on screen, but they add richness to your character.

Q. You share quite a few scenes with Jim, and a couple of them with Kalki - both of them have an immensely enviable body of work. So, when you work with such actors who have done such amazing work in the past, what do you take back from their process? What were your learnings while you worked with them?

A. First of all, it's both exciting and kind of nerve wrecking initially, because you want to meet them and at the same time, you're also excited because it's going to elevate your game. There was one scene where they come over and they're confronting me and even in the office scene - we did the scene first, together. I experienced that they are actors who are also concerned about contributing to you. It's not just about them, but it's about the collective thing. And I got that, right. Like, in the office scene, when I stormed out, Jim was giving me this annoyance, like that attitude, where it was very easy to work with what I needed to bring out. With both of them, just the give and take, was really beautiful. It was reinforcing for me that when you're working with people who have that energy of give and take and there's a reason why people enjoy working with actors that give back.

Q. You shot for the show during COVID over two years. There would have been quite a few long gaps in between your shooting dates. How easy or difficult it is to revisit your character when there are such long pauses in between your shooting dates.

A. That was actually quite a challenge in the sense that later I did not know how it had come together. When I finished my shoot after approximately two years, I wasn't sure whether Gauri came out consistently. When you come on set after such a long gap, especially when I have a few scenes - in the sense that I’m in five episodes. One of the challenges is that you're not seeing your co-actors on a regular basis, right? So, you miss out on creating maybe a deeper dynamic. But, I think that was in my favor, because my character was sort of distanced from Adil. So, it probably helped in that way. If we were actually like close siblings, then it would have helped to be around each other more. But, it worked out in my favor, in that sense. 

But, it did feel like, ‘Oh, my God, I'm coming back on set after a long time, I hope that I can be consistent’ and meet the same energy of the character. Also, when you shoot, you don't do it linearly. It's not a linear shoot. You do one scene from the end, and then one from the middle. You really have to keep in mind what you did or what the vibe was. Like, the last scene when I'm giving Jim a present, he was just reminding me, ‘Achha, right after this, we did this.. like we just met for drinks,’ and he gave me a quick recap. II'm glad that it came together but there was a really long gap.

Q. If you could take back one trait of Gauri Khanna, what would it be?

A. Oh, wow! I didn’t think about that (pauses). Some of the background they gave me like, in terms of her education and how she's grown up, she is quite independent, she went to New York to study, she's come back, and she's doing her thing. And I could resonate with that lifestyle, because I did that, too. I went to New York, trained and stuff. But, I brought parts of my authentic understanding of her. There has to be similarities in that sense. Gauri Khanna at some level has some aspects of me. I think her sense of style - she has a comfortable, easy vibe. I could really relate to that. 

Q. The show has been loved immensely. How do you look ahead from here? What kind of roles or characters do you want to take up in the future? Or if there is any particular genre that comes very easily to you?

A. I'm quite open, in terms of the roles and characters. I have worked a lot with comedy, and serious characters. it's important for me to resonate with the story, and what the character stands for. Not necessarily stands for, but I’d love to be part of stories that move the audience in some way. All the roles that come to me are a challenge for me to learn and grow. So, of course, I'm open to them. 

Q. Is there anything that you've watched in the recent past where you were really impressed by a character, and you were like, ‘Oh, I wish I could have gotten a chance to play something like that.’?

A. That happens quite often. There was a time when I was watching Bridgerton, and I was like, ‘Oh, I want to be one of the characters in that.’ I also enjoyed Mismatched. I thought that was cute and fun. And there's lots of series. I can't think of one character. 

Q. Do you have a wish list of directors that you would want to work with?

A. Oh, my God! I basically want to work with directors around the world. There are so many wonderful directors in India and globally. Zoya was among them and it's been amazing to receive the opportunity to work with her. It was lovely working with Neeraj Ghaywan and Alankrita too. Would love to do more work with them.  

I'm drawn to moving, uplifting, inspiring stories. To name a few directors is challenging, but here goes my list - In India, Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, Gauri Shinde, Nitesh Tiwari, Aditya Chopra, Akarsh Khurana. Internationally - Marielle Heller, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Greta Gerwig, and Steven Spielberg.

Q. How do you see the explosion of content in the OTT space?

A. I think OTT is a platform that is breaking borders. Like, you've seen Emily in Paris? The person who's heading the agency is French. There's so many actors that have been able to increase their body of work across borders, which I think is really beautiful. A story that OTT tells, you can get into the detail of the journey of characters. There’s a little gift about OTT as well in the way that you can really expand characters without boring the audience, because in a series, you will have an episode and it could be like an hour, or it could be 20 minutes, and over time, the character can really be expanded. So, you can really tell a story in a deep way. I really like that about OTT. Did you mean that in terms of explosion?

Q. What you said is kind of right. But what I actually meant was, if you go back, say three to four years, when the India specific shows on OTT were very far and few. You had probably one Sacred Games, and then a couple other shows that came in like Mirzapur. There wasn’t such a lot of content. Personally, I think that we also have to thank COVID for the fact that such a variety of content on so many platforms is available now. That has given a lot of opportunities for the influx of fresh talent as well, not just in acting, but in terms writers, technicians,etc.

How do you see the OTT space in this context? Is it something that will facilitate the influx of more talented actors? Because earlier, for anybody who would want to be an actor, there was a set pattern, right? You do theater, pay attention to your physique - you hit the gym, then you wait in long queues, give auditions one after the other, and then you wait for that one big break in a film. Do you think OTT has changed that?

A. I think two things have happened. One is what you're saying, there's an influx of new talent that is getting more opportunity because there's more demand and more work being created. I think it's empowering. A lot of people didn't know how to put their work out there. For example, if there's a writer, their project might not be made into a big film. OTT is giving them a voice in some ways, so it's empowering that. I can make a film or even a short film that OTT might pick up. I definitely do think that it's changed how we watch television. It's changed some elements of the industry. Also what you said about COVID - the auditioning process has changed because people are more open to that.

Q. Also there was a lot of chatter about how less people were going to the cinema halls to watch movies. With such a wide variety of content on multiple OTT platforms, do you think we will reach a point where the content consumption habits of the masses would change to such a drastic extent that OTT content will completely replace the experience of watching something in theaters?

A. It has changed, but I think that could also be because of COVID to some degree, because COVID went on for three years so there's a drastic shift in how many people are willing to pay for a ticket. I remember when I was studying in the States, OTT was already there. That pattern was already there.One of my teachers talked about how a ticket for cinema is so expensive to buy that sometimes people prefer to wait for it to come on OTT. So, there is a possibility that the dynamics will shift. But that hasn't been the case with TV, right? Like, one medium replaces the other in cyclical ways. That's just the nature of how our societies progressed over the last few decades. As a new thing comes, some shifts happen. But I feel like certain films still create enough momentum for people to actually want to still experience it in the cinema. I feel there is a place for cinema, it might shift, but it's also making us more aware of what kind of stories are going to work for cinema.

Q. Nirvana, what's next for you after Made in Heaven 2?

A. I can't really say anything right now. I'm auditioning - and that's a constant, in my case (chuckles). There's always projects that I'm sending work out for and people have appreciated my work and reached out for some projects here and there. Once I have something to share, hopefully we can do another interview (signs off).

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